Lieutenant Colonel Robert Lee Wolverton, late Commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 506th Paratroop Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, sleeps in St. Mere Eglise in Normandy where he died in action on June 6, 1944.
He died the hero's death of which he may have dreamed when, as a boy of nine, he dedicated his life to his country. Not yet thirty when he died, he had yet piled up an enviable record of service and left an example of perseverance, courage and idealism running like a bright thread through the difficult years from that long ago day, when the burning desire to attend West Point gripped the small boy, until Invasion Day, when the veteran paratrooper plunged to his death on the flaming fields of Normandy.
Son of Wayne Jay and Hattie Sharp Wolverton, he was born on October 5, 1914, in Elkins, West Virginia, where he attended grammar and high school and Davis and Elkins College.
Bob was just nine years old when he began to talk of going to West Point. West Point remained uppermost in his mind during the next eleven years, and it was largely through his own efforts that he secured his appointment in 1934.
Outwardly, his boyhood seemed much like that of any intelligent, athletic boy; but in reality, all that he felt and said and did was integrated with this intense longing to be a cadet at the United States Military Academy.
Loving athletics, and thinking they would harden his body for military service, he played football in high school and college with all his characteristic energy, an energy which proved almost calamitous to his plans, for he overstrained his heart. His acceptance at West Point depended, he knew, on his overcoming that handicap, impossible as it seemed; but he would not admit defeat, and by dint of a carefully controlled health regimen, he was able to pass the physical examination when his appointment finally came through.
The eleven years from 1923 to 1934 were a period of alternating hope and disappointment for him. When he graduated from high school in 1932, there seemed to be no chance of his entering West Point so he attended Davis and Elkins College for two years while the obstacles to his ambition piled up and multiplied around him. However, he carried on a correspondence with two or three cadets and kept in touch with openings in his district. Consequently, when a vacancy occurred, he was able to notify his Congressman and to secure his sponsorship.
Bob loved West Point; the football trips, the trip to Benning, First Class weekends, the association with fellow cadets, the majestic Hudson, but most of all, I think, its hallowed traditions. He played football on the B squad, rode in the horse show at Tuxedo Park, and took part in other activities. He had a strong inclination toward the artistic and after graduation often amused himself by experimenting in oils, turning out several portraits of his friends.
He graduated from West Point in 1938, and on August 17, 1938, he married Kathleen Goodwin, a home town girl, in a military wedding with several of his classmates forming the guard of honor.
He was commissioned in the Infantry and served his first tour of duty with the 27th Infantry at Schofield Barracks, T. H. During his two years there (1938-1940), the whole Department lived in fear of a Japanese attack, and several times they were ordered to their battle stations. Perhaps it was this imminence of war which intensified his growing interest in the parachute troops.
At that time, the Army had formed no definite program for paratroop training, so on his own initiative, he built up enthusiasm in his men for parachute jumping, and determined to construct a mock-up tower of his own and to start training his men and himself. Though these schemes came to nothing, he still had paratrooping in his mind and applied for a transfer to a paratroop regiment. His application was turned down because the Army had as yet no real paratroop unit. Nevertheless, his interest in parachute troops solidified within him an intense ambition to be a paratrooper, and once again he bet himself a goal towards which to struggle.
While he was with the 27th Infantry, he was editor of the regimental paper The Wolfhound for two years, and was assistant coach of the regimental football team and coach of the track team.
After his return to the United States in 1940, he went to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he served with the 47th Infantry Regiment as Captain and Commander of Headquarters Company.
Here, on August 24, 1941, his son, Robert Lachlan Wolverton, was born.
On December 7, 1941, his desire to be a part of the airborne troops came alive again. He immediately applied for a transfer to the airborne troops, and this time he was successful. In February, 1942, he and his family left for Fort Benning and the paratroops. In the summer of 1942, he was sent to the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, and upon his return was assigned as commander of the Third Battalion "of the 506th Paratroop Regiment, then stationed at Toccoa, Georgia.
While they were still at Toccoa, some of his men read an article in one of our popular magazines stating that the Japanese Army could outmarch the American. Resenting this statement, they requested that a march be scheduled that would show that Americans could outmarch the Japanese. To prove their stamina, the whole battalion, with the exception of a very few men, marched from Atlanta. Georgia to Columbus, Georgia, a distance of 115 miles, in three days and two nights, thus putting to rout the myth of Japanese superiority.
The whole regiment was transferred to Fort Benning, where they stayed until March, 1943, when they left for Camp McCall In North Carolina. On September 5. 1943, the regiment sailed for England, where it underwent a period of maneuvers and training in preparation for the big jump on D-Day.
In the early hours of June 6, 1944, he called his troops together for the last time before they boarded the planes which were to take them into the Invasion of France. He led them In a short prayer, and told them he would meet them the next year at the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City. That was the last time any of his men ever saw him.
Ward Smith, who rode in the plane with Colonel Wolverton, has described that historic (light over Normandy in his famous article “I Saw Them Jump To Destiny”. They jumped, and when the battle let up enough for the paratroops to organize, Colonel Wolverton was among the missing. He was carried on the missing in action list until January, 1945, when he was officially declared killed in action.
Bob’s battalion went on and covered themselves and him with glory. During the bad times at Bastogne, many of them were heard to say, "If the Colonel were only here—!”
His men had a deep and sincere respect and love for him, which they showed when they came from all parts of the country in all sorts of conveyances to the appointed reunion at the Muehlebach Hotel on June 6, 1946. At this reunion they reconstructed his D-Day prayer and it was read to them at a memorial service which seemed to bring the Colonel close to them In spirit.
He was awarded the Legion of Merit posthumously. It was officially presented at West Point to Mrs. Kathleen Wolverton by Major General Maxwell D. Taylor on November 10, 1946.
His regimental commander, Colonel R. F. Sink has written: "He was loved sincerely by all of his men and officers. I consider him the best battalion commander in the regiment, and I am sure that General Taylor ranked him similarly within the division. He was a fine person”.
Brief as was his career in the Army, he accomplished great things in the job he loved with all his heart and to which he devoted his life. He respected his men and had complete faith in them, leaving them an enduring example of leadership and courage, so that they might say of him in the words of Walt Whitman: “Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade”.
He is survived by his wife and son; his parents; one brother, who served in the Navy; and two sisters.